Thursday, January 22, 2004

Bengals eye offensive line

Could use help in interior

By Mark Curnutte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

MOBILE, Ala. - The offensive line Class of 2004 is not among the best in recent years, so the Bengals aren't expected to invest their first-round pick in that position.

The solutions to concerns about starters' ages and depth are probably already on the roster, assistant head coach/offensive line coach Paul Alexander said Wednesday.

"We've got pretty good depth," Alexander said after he put North team offensive linemen through drills in preparation of the Senior Bowl on Saturday.

"I think Victor Leyva is going to be all right. I think (Scott) Kooistra is going to be all right. It's just that we've had good guys in front of them. They haven't had to play."

Leyva, a guard-tackle who was the fifth-round pick in 2001, did not play in 2003 and dressed for just seven games. Kooistra, a tackle taken in the seventh round in 2003, played in eight games - primarily on special teams.

"We've had them on the shelf a little bit," Alexander said. "Their day will come, and they'll do fine."

The other linemen on the roster are guard-tackle Scott Rehberg, third-year guard-center Thatcher Szalay and fourth-year tackle-guard Alex Sulfsted.

"I think Thatcher is still a year away," Alexander said.

The North team is generally regarded as having some mid- and late-round picks on its offensive line.

"That's why there's seven rounds," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said.

A possible Bengals pick could be Kansas State center Nick Leckey, who is 6 feet 6, 310 pounds.

The South team at the Senior Bowl is seen by scouts and many coaches as having more NFL-ready players, particularly Florida tackle Max Starks.

The Bengals have three unrestricted free agents on the interior of the line - center Rich Braham and guards Mike Goff and Matt O'Dwyer. The Bengals would like to re-sign Braham and Goff, but O'Dwyer has indicated he would like to leave and win a starting job for another team, Lewis said.

Goff and starting tackles Willie Anderson and Levi Jones each started 16 games. Braham and rookie left guard Eric Steinbach each started 15.

The line keyed the Bengals' 13th-ranked rush offense (124.2 yards a game) and allowed 37 sacks - which ranked 16th in the league per pass play.

"Victor would have played this year but we went the whole year and hardly got anyone hurt," Alexander said.

Still, Anderson is entering his ninth season. Rehberg struggled when forced to play for an injured Jones at Baltimore. Steinbach's speed and athleticism were missed when he had to miss the 15th game at St. Louis.

The Bengals might go after a veteran interior offensive lineman. They had pursued both center Gennaro DiNapoli (Dallas) and guard Doug Brzezinski (Carolina) last offseason. DiNapoli is again an unrestricted free agent.

"I'll tell you what, you get yourself killed (salary) cap-wise if you're bringing in veteran offensive linemen all the time," Alexander said. "You've got to bring them (rookies) in, you've got to teach them, move them along, and if somebody leaves, you plug them in and move along."


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